VI: Exposition

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Chapter VI

Dominic trudged along. The same mountainside crushed and crumbled beneath his feet, slowly taking him back the way he had come.

He looked down. The young man in his arms was still unconscious; Sherrad had awoken earlier, but only had time to say “Morphine,” and give a ‘thumbs up’ sign before slipping into a drugged up coma. Dom didn’t say a word.

Climbing over the ridge and back down the way he came, he would occasionally look over his shoulder and scan the valley. Ever darker desert greeted him each time, soundlessly demonstrating that it was still devoid of life. He checked the time. 21:22… Four hours since he had seen Maria dashing up the stairs and out of sight; and soon after, her personal signal had just disappeared. He had waited for her as long as he could, searching the immediate area thoroughly, but he eventually had no choice but to leave.

Dom looked down at Sherrad, checking his wound. He had gone back and gotten the boy’s arm, wretched and bent in the bloody hallway, but it may have been a wasted effort. For some reason, the arm wouldn’t take—nanofiber strands were the only thing holding it to Sherrad’s body, locked in place by hardened armor. His internal medical systems should have taken over and begun to reattach the limb hours ago, but nothing happened.

Even more disconcerting were the details, outlined in a medical report shared between them—cell scans conducted within Sherrad’s suit indicated that the muscles were slowly disintegrating due to an unknown substance, introduced into his system at the time of his dismemberment. And as nano machines approached to reattach the limb, they were instantly dissolved by the strange liquid. There was nothing he could do.

Closing the diagnostic, he surveyed the mountainside for a place to stop and gather his thoughts. Nearby was a small plateau, formed of granite; it would do for now. Bathed in the light of the moon, he slid and thudded heavily down the mountainside, Maria once more on his mind. I’ll have to come back for her… he realized.

As if on cue, a message notice alit upon his heads-up display. He ground to a halt in surprise, struggling to steady himself.

“Dom, can you hear me? Dom?”

“Maria, where are you? I’ve been trying to reach your for hours,” he spoke aloud, voice reverberating with bewilderment.

“If… Message… Camp…” It was just a recording, and it was dropping words, cutting in and out. He strained to listen, but nothing useful came through.

Time stamped… Four hours ago. Same as the time she left.

He ran a source scan, trying to determine her position. The location wasn’t far from him, he should be able to see it, he knew. After laying down his burden, he ran swiftly back up the mountainside and scanned the valley once more. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the origin of the call, and a miniscule camera attached over his shoulder zoomed in, detailing the spot with a shimmering hologram.

How in hell… he wondered. Just off the end of a distant walkway, a ghostly play of colors swirled in a dark sphere, suspended over the desert floor, barely visible. And according to his equipment, Maria was right there, somehow suspended in mid air.

But he knew better than to think it was anything useful. He shook his head, muttering, “Damn it, just another damn anomaly,” and shuffled back down the hill, convinced that he was back at square one.

. . .

They had been walking for hours, the sun dropping gently towards the horizon as they crossed lush terrain, flattened and trampled by unknown traffic into winding paths. Maria kept the hope that they would suddenly find themselves back in their own world, back where she could finish her task; but another part of her mind stirred with excitement, cautiously hopeful about what they might find hidden beyond this unending forest.

“Does it seem darker to you than it should?” he asked.

She hadn’t noticed it before. The sun hadn’t set, but its light seemed to diffuse upon the leafy canopy of branches overhead, scattered before it could reach the forest floor. “Yeah, it’s like there’s a shroud over us…”’

“And I can’t hear birds anymore.”

“Because there aren’t any,” she said, “Scans come up empty… We’re all alone.”

“Feels weird.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. There’re all sorts of anomalies in these places, light distortion being one of the more common ones… The animals probably just prefer the sun.” He’s right though… there’s definitely something strange about these woods… something I’m not seeing yet.

“We’re still heading south west,” she said, “The city can’t be more than a day’s walk from here.”

“Any idea what we’ll find when we get there?”

“I don’t know. This is completely new to me… Probably another civilization.” She heard the words coming out of her mouth, but it was hard to comprehend them. “It’s pretty terrifying, when you think about it. Could be anything.”

“What about humans?”

“Well, yeah, it’s more than likely.” She turned around and waited; he was lagging behind. “Or something humanoid. Maybe their civilization died off too. It looked so empty.”

“It was eerie,” he said, steadying himself against a broad tree trunk, “but who knows… maybe we’ll find ourselves.” Steadying himself, he leapt over a large bush and trundled to her side, almost falling.

She reached out and helped him stand up. He still seemed a little disoriented. “How you feeling?”

“Fine,” he said, panting. “Thanks. Still getting the hang of everything.” He stood up and nodded at her to go on. I was her guide and teacher. Now I’m lost.

“How long have things been this way?” he asked.

“I don’t know. We all lost a lot of time… years, even.” They jogged onto a level path, ducking beneath branches and dodging around rocks, talking when they could. “I’ve been trying to piece it together, based on what other people remember, but so much of what they say is unreliable.”

“You lost a lot of time? What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain… The last thing I remember was packing.” A reminiscent smile snuck onto her lips. “For a trip. I don’t even remember where, but I’m pretty sure it must have been New York, because then… God it still sounds strange… one day, there I am, all alone in the middle of Manhattan.”

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